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Another fine mess

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The Promise: President Obama, Year One - Jonathan Alter Screw Lost.

The short review is: a real accomplishment and a rewarding read, even for us political junkies. Alter manages to distill a number of very complex political issues and struggles into concise explications of policy debate, not just salacious chatter about personalities and horse-race. Yet he's also intent on capturing something about the character of the major players, President Obama most particularly. It is very much a book about what he's accomplished, and how--but it is also a warts-and-all study of a leadership evolving. Better, more complex histories may come along, but this is way better than your average rehashing of daily reporting.

Meanwhile, the haters will be bashing Alter for koolaid-drinking or some such. Alter undoubtedly admires Obama,and he hasn't too much time for the false objectivity of giving every moron with an opinion lots of airspace. His footnotes on phenomena like the birthers can be cutting, and are always concise. And I for one am grateful that such chatter mostly went into footnotes. Obama sees the circus of a twenty-four-hour newscycle and partisan games as distraction, and Alter never gets distracted. Huzzah. Which is not to say Obama gets a pass--there are clear-eyed assessments of BO's missteps, flaws, learning curve. Real challenges and counterarguments get their due--there's great stuff on health care and Afghanistan and TARP--again, Alter is fascinated by the difficult choices Obama faced, and how he decided.

And you know, even as a decided fan of Obama's pragmatic idealism, I was startled by the accounting sheet for this first year. As one of Alter's sources notes, if you broke the TARP bill down into its signal elements, it'd be one of the largest alternative energy bills in history, one of the most substantive education bills in history, a substantive infrastructure bill, etc. The accomplishments in one year--even beyond the big-ticket items--are objectively startling. Agree, disagree--this President has already achieved so very much.

Yet so much is affirmed primarily by counterfactual. If no TARP, what would have happened? If no movement on the automakers, what would have happened? Here Alter can only hypothesize, however persuasive and well-supported his account. He has to keep nodding to the future, to that imagined point in time when we can make a clearer assessment of what was and what might have been (if not for what was).

Last little whine. Alter throws in the obligatory nod to Cuomo's brilliant aphorism about campaigning in poetry and governing in prose. And, alas, writers who write on campaigning and governing have trouble even with the prose bar. Not true or fair here--Alter's a clean, crisp stylist, and he has a very sure, even brilliant sense of narrative and detail--it's not cluttered yet it's a thorough accounting, and it's structured with much sophistication. But I would have loved a little more beauty, a zippier Richard-Ben-Cramer prose, ....but when a book is so of the moment, what right do I have to whine?